Can a vegetarian diet lead to weaker bones? Whether or not a vegetarian diet lowers bone density has been unclear since some studies show that it does and others show no association between reduced bone density and a vegetarian diet. It’s been difficult to come to any firm conclusion since there are so many types of vegetarian diets ranging from a strict vegan diet to a pescatarian diet where fish is allowed. A recent analysis of nine studies looking at whether vegetarian diets lower bone density was recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. This analysis showed a slight difference in bone density between vegetarians and meat eaters, particularly among vegans, although the difference didn’t appear to be significant from a health standpoint.
Lower Bone Density and the Vegetarian Diet: A Study
Researchers looked at the diets of 2,749 men and women. Comparing vegetarian and vegan diets to traditional diets containing meat, they found that vegetarians had a lower bone density, but only four percent lower than meat eaters. Those who ate a vegan diet fared a little less well with a six percent lower bone density. Although this study was small, it suggests that it’s unlikely that eating a vegetarian diet is a serious risk factor for weaker bones. Eating a vegan diet does carry a slightly higher risk, but it’s still not clear whether this translates into an increased risk of fractures.
Preventing Weaker Bones and Lower Bone Density
What can a vegetarian or vegan do to preserve bone density while still enjoying a vegetarian or vegan diet? Vegetarians are at an advantage over vegans when it comes to preventing weaker bones. Most dairy products are a good source of calcium which vegetarians can freely consume. Vegans, on the other hand, need to get their calcium from non-dairy sources. Some good options? Green, leafy vegetables such as kale, collard greens, and turnip greens as well as beans, nuts, and seeds all help to boost calcium levels.
Many non-dairy milks, cereals, and orange juice are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, making these foods a good choice to help preserve bone density. Vitamin D is also important for strong bones. Getting at least ten minutes of direct sunlight several times a week and eating vitamin D fortified foods is an important strategy for maintaining healthy bones. For some vegetarians and vegans, supplements of calcium and vitamin D may be needed. Vitamin D levels can be checked through a blood test and is well worth the time and money since up to three-quarters of Americans are deficient.
Potassium, found in fruits and vegetables, and magnesium, abundant in whole grain foods such as wheat bran, nuts, and seed, are two mineral s that are important for bone health. Adding more non-processed foods to the diet, particularly unrefined grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables is important for the vegetarian or vegan who wants to prevent weaker bones. Eating soy foods is also helpful for maintaining bone density, although fermented soy such as miso and tempeh have more health benefits than unfermented forms such as tofu.
Another way to prevent weaker bones when eating a meat and dairy-free diet is to exercise. High impact exercises such as running and jumping rope are best for building bones and are most effective when combined with total body strength training.
To Prevent Weaker Bones: The Bottom Line
Eating a vegetarian, particularly a vegan diet, may lower bone density slightly, but the risk of weaker bones may be reduced by getting enough calcium, vitamin D, magnesium, and potassium from vegetarian sources. Exercising and avoiding smoking are also good lifestyle habits for better bone density.